Whatever, Whenever?

The clearest choices before us all concern our consumption habits. This global health crisis has revealed some good reasons why we might choose never to go back to old habits of work, travel, shopping, eating, entertainment. And it has shown that very different choices are possible. In market economies around the world, this pandemic has broken some of the most basic rules about “the consumer.”

One rule is that we are free to consume whatever we want, whenever we want. The only limit is our income (and some laws).

This pandemic has suspended that policy (in most places). Sellers cannot simply sell because they see an opportunity. Buyers cannot simply buy because they want to. That simple policy is too dangerous. Public health has to be considered, too.

What other trade-offs might we consider?

Is public health the only other trade-off we face, each time we choose to consume? Of course not. The environment immediately comes to mind. Three more potential trade-offs that are obvious right now (but maybe don’t get the reflection they deserve) include:

1. Degradation vs Regeneration

Europeans who are lucky enough to travel right now can report: seeing the Mona Lisa is better in a group of 20 versus a crowd of 200. Standing in St Mark’s Square in Venice is better when it’s mostly empty. The majority of us who can’t travel have nonetheless noticed: our skies are cleaner with fewer planes; our city is quieter with less traffic.

As we consume a thing, the thing itself is often left in a poorer state.

So is our appreciation of it.

2. Appetite vs Appreciation

The more we consume a thing, the harder it can become to appreciate it. I’m thinking of a New Zealand friend, who recently attended a rugby match in a stadium full of people. The match itself was awful (i.e., his team lost badly), but he described the experience as totally unlike any other match he’d been to. It wasn’t simply a sporting event. Everyone’s joy lifted it into a mass spiritual gathering. A moment they’ll all never forget.

What if coronavirus enforces a long-term rationing of entertainment? This month, the pubs are open. Next month, the movie theaters. The month after, the restaurants. But never all together in the same month. Would you appreciate your choices more, if you could only make them sometimes?

3. Complacency vs Urgency

Satisfaction can lull us to be content with “good enough.” Frustration can fuel our search for something better. How many new, improved ways of working, of collaborating, of convening, has society discovered these past several months — all because we were forced to look for immediate alternatives-at-a-distance?

A small personal example: I quickly had to find a better way to coach clients I could no longer meet. It led me and some friends to develop a new tool for professionals who annotate audio. It’s faster and smarter than how I was doing things before (which was sufficiently “good enough” that I never would have bothered to come up with something much better).

For a more powerful example, I think of my friend Sam, who works with at-risk youth in the UK — some of whom have gone on to become music stars and business titans. Having never known complacency, they never stop striving.

The voice of scarcity

While we’re talking about at-risk youth, you might observe that “What will I give up?” seems to be a rather exclusive question, one for those who already live in abundance. The people who can face the above trade-offs are the privileged few. Most people can only dream of wrestling with these dilemmas.

But if you think about it more, those who live in scarcity must be part of this conversation.

First, because people who live in scarcity often understand these trade-offs best. Those who took fewer things for granted did not need a global pandemic to appreciate things more.

Second, because people who live in scarcity set the ceiling for what level is abundance is attainable.

It’s always been true, but during a pandemic it’s plain to see: the economy is only as resilient as its most vulnerable consumer. The second basic rule of consumer society to have been suspended by this pandemic is “You can’t have what you can’t afford.” Right now, that rule has been flipped: there are some goods that society can’t afford consumers not to have. In recent months, governments around the world have handed people cash so that they can make choices that their incomes do not allow them to make: so that the shift worker can rest at home, so that the small business owner can close their shop, so that the low-income family can all self-quarantine when one develops symptoms.

Abundance that does not understand scarcity is like a skydiver who does not understand gravity.

Is Less More?

The experience of this pandemic has hinted to many people that the answer to this classic question really might be “Yes.” Yes, if I prune my personal consumption, I might create new space in my own life — and in the world around me — for more, healthier growth.

Marie Kondo became an international celebrity for spreading a simple observation: most of us spend most of our time accumulating stuff, but more stuff doesn’t always make us more happy. Just the opposite — it can suffocate our growth.

Do we put enough care and attention into pruning our consumption?

Not so that we end up with less. But to help us flourish.